The unlikely feminists

Can you cover your head, stay home with the kids, sell your body to men... and still proudly champion women’s rights? These three Berliners can and do.

Image for The unlikely feminists Can you cover your head, stay home with the kids, sell your body to men… and still proudly champion women’s rights? These three Berliners can and do. The housewife Doting wife and mother of three ANNA LUZ DE LÉON believes stay-at-home mums can be as empowered as any other woman. If they ever made (yet another) remake of The Stepford Wives in Berlin, De Léon would be the perfect casting choice. While her husband’s out working as a digital consultant, she’s baking cakes and muffins, taking her 13- and seven-year-old daughters and nine-year-old son on excursions to Fleesensee, or spreading out blankets on the hardwood floor of her Mitte flat for an indoor picnic. And blogging and Instagramming it all, to the tune of over 7000 followers. As “BerlinMitteMom”, she posts pictures, recipes and everyday observations while proudly trumpeting the stay-at-home lifestyle. “No one pressured me into this. And yes, I am still a feminist.” When De Léon discovered she was unexpectedly pregnant at 28, just before she finished her dual diploma in art history and business studies in Bonn, she suddenly found herself sidelined. “I was off the mailing list for our project, and I was left out of meetings.” Shortly after she gave birth, her husband was offered a job in Berlin. “After that experience, I was at a bit of a loss and I decided to stay at home for a bit.” Soon ‘a bit’ turned into a few years. De Léon is aware that she’s in a privileged position. “If money is tight, there is nothing you can do – many mothers have to work. I was lucky.” De Léon, who kept her Salvadorian father’s name when she married, says she and her husband make big life decisions together and, though very different, her job is just as important as his. However, some people have a hard time reconciling this traditional family picture with today’s idea of feminism. Even her own mother had reservations. “My grandmother was a very smart woman who ended up in a situation where she was forced to stay at home. So she taught her daughters to get as much education and independence as possible. Likewise, my mother always tried to persuade me to go for a PhD and have a career. She had trouble wrapping her head around the fact that I was happy being a stay-at-home mum.” Having a blog means getting judged by strangers as well. “I get comments like: ‘So you’re done?’ or people calling me a Hausmütterchen, dependent on my husband with no other interests. As if becoming a mother and staying at home means you stop living. I think it’s the opposite. With three kids there is a lot of work and responsibility.” Make that four kids, including the blog. Over the years, De Léon has been able to monetise the BerlinMitteMom brand, earning sponsorship from companies like Rossmann, while also using it to engage in feminist debates. “A fellow blogger complained about female nudity on billboards on the way to her children’s school. I agreed – you see way fewer placards of men being objectified like that; try explaining that to your daughter. But of course, the internet completely lost it. Most people basically told her to shut up and stop complaining.” Her outlook on feminism influences the way she raises her kids, too. “I want them to question these things, that women have to be that and boys have to be this. I don’t want them to judge someone’s worth based on their gender.” Or, for that matter, whether or not they have kids. “If women are supposed to be quiet, then mothers are supposed to be invisible. Look at how people talk about Prenzlauer Berg ‘Latte Macchiato Mamas’. When they’re out with their pram or letting the kids play around, they get treated like an inconvenience at best. And I feel like this is worse in Berlin. When we went on vacation in California, people were much more understanding of a big family taking up some space.” All in all, De Léon is glad she chose to stay at home, but also grateful for her online outlet to the outside world. Her Mutti-Blog has opened up opportunities as a social media advisor and has connected her to many other mothers – and some fathers – who eagerly read her tips, advice and encouragement that whatever lifestyle you choose, you’re not setting back equality by a few decades. JH
The hijab seller ISMAHAN ATILGAN is a modern Muslim businesswoman… who makes a living off of covering women’s heads.
Image for The unlikely feminists
Photo by Maria Runarsdottir
Muted but floral is not how you’d usually describe a person. But that’s how you might describe Ismahan Atilgan’s hijab, in this case a Turkish-styled wrap – peach, lightweight and available on TrendyCovered.com, the company she started a year and a half ago. “I chose this one today; I thought it would match my outfit.” Casually clad in woollen over-vest and dark skinny trousers, with gold jewellery, feminine eyeliner and lightly blushed cheeks, “Issi” has agreed to meet us at the Einstein Café near Nordbahnhof to discuss both her online Muslim fashion business and her take on feminism. She’s accompanied by her husband, Aytan, who orders cappuccinos for the both of them upon arrival. “When it comes to hijabs, variety is important,” Aytan Atilgan chimes in. He’s not just Ismahan’s husband; he’s her business partner. As a matter of fact, he owns the company. “We have a wide choice from Arabian to Turkish styles and even long tunics, all easily searchable for women. The site is professional and our fabrics are high-quality, luxurious items!” He doesn’t need a hijab, of course. His wife, on the other hand, only shows her face, hands and feet. Yet she’s adamant that no matter what Westerners might think, clothing herself modestly and covering her head, “a must for a practising Muslima,” is ultimately a woman’s choice. And yes, Issi insists she’s a “modern Muslim businesswoman and a feminist.” Doesn’t she mind that their company is registered under her husband’s name; that Mr. Atilgan is the one ordering her drink, the one who answered our email to her – who takes care of all “important logistics and business” correspondence, in fact – and drove her to our meeting? “No, I don’t mind those things. Aytan’s my husband; we are partners. The company is equally mine and everything is done 50-50,” Ismahan says, pointing out that as a successful business development manager for UPS for seven years, her husband had the right experience to run the company. “My own expertise is in e-marketing. After many years working for other people’s start-ups, I thought, why not have my own business? The idea came because I like hijab fashion but I can’t just buy one at H&M. This way it’ll be easier, I thought.” But what about making money off of covering female bodies – a practice widely associated with women’s submission to men, enforced under male rule for centuries and still in place in many Muslim countries the world over? “What the world sees and is scared by… those aren’t real Muslims,” says Ismahan. “Our religion does not condone gender oppression or violence. The correct reading of the Quran is that men and women have their differences, but we are all equal. We believe we’re meant to complement one another.” She concurs the Western world might not see things that way. “Western feminist idealists tell me I cannot be a feminist. They exclude Muslim women from their idea of what freedom is. This is unfair.” With a bachelor’s degree in business and experience in Berlin’s original start-up scene, she explains: “I am a feminist for my hard work: my education, my achievements in my career, my beliefs in gender equality and my personality. It has nothing do with my religion. Religion shouldn’t shape all your personal beliefs in a modern world. It’s more like a GPS – helping to keep you on the right course!” “Berlin has yet to fully accept the hijab,” she concludes. With 500,000 Turkish Muslims, the city is a huge potential market for the Atilgans, especially considering Muslim fashion is still absent from most German retailers. “Muslim women like fashion, like any other women. Why shouldn’t we be offered the same options?” The pair does not sell more restrictive veils like niqabs or burqas, but with 2016 claiming news that designer label Dolce & Gabbana is now offering hijabs and abayas and Marks & Spencer has launched its first burqini, celebrating mainstream integration is the plan. Pro-personal choice in all areas, Issi hits the nail on the head in asking, “Does wearing a hijab make me a feminist? No. It makes me a Muslim. Can a woman in a hijab be a feminist? Yes, definitely.”  SB
Image for The unlikely feminists The hooker Professional sex worker and brothel owner EMMA STEEL says prostitution can be the most advanced form of feminism. “I’m really proud of this place,” Steel says, glancing out from the spacious room with dark red walls in a Tempelhof Altbau. She’s surrounded by a costume lineup worthy of a star actress. Maid outfits, lingerie, whips, animal hoods, gas masks, diapers… enough to fulfil even the most imaginative man’s deepest fantasy. Which she does, two to four times a week – making good money in the process. Ten years ago, Steel, then a graphic designer, got a call from a friend who was a sex worker: could she help ‘entertain’ a client? She had so much fun that she decided to make a permanent career switch. Now, at age 40, Steel is not only a professional prostitute, she’s the proud co-owner of a brothel. And calls herself “the most advanced kind of feminist”. “Feminism for me means to acknowledge the strength in all women, not see them as victims. I’ve never met a prostitute who wasn’t a very strong woman. In our job, we get praised for being the powerful women we are.” With a quick, experienced pull, the petite woman rolls a long, wide “massage table” into the room, and points to a strategically placed hole in the middle. “Here you have good access to the dick,” she says matter-of-factly. “Women are raised to perceive feelings and sex as one thing, to be ‘nice girls’,” she continues. “That’s socialisation. I think many of the so-called feminists who are against prostitution are provoked by the fact that here’s a woman who has such a healthy relationship to her own sexuality that she can offer a sexual service to others without compromising herself.” Though Steel has made a career out of having sex with men (and the occasional woman), it’s hard to call her subservient. When a customer comes to see her, she explains, she decides whether she wants to engage with him or her – if the fantasy doesn’t appeal, she doesn’t do it. At €220-250 a session, she makes a good living, “and I enjoy my work.” A first-world hooker’s privilege in an otherwise ruthless, often criminal industry? Fellow sex workers employed in flatrate mega-brothels such as the recently raided Artemis, or those who walk Kurfürstenstraße accepting as little as €10 for oral sex, might not have the same luxury. Steel says the perception of the “poor hooker” is one-sided. “The truth is that the sex business is like any other industry: It’s a huge field, and you’ll find both good and bad conditions.” What about the fact that those conditions can include rape and human trafficking? Steel is a member of Hydra, a Berlin-based counselling and interest group for prostitutes. “Because of that, I know a few women who were coerced into prostitution, but it’s not my place to tell their story. Coercion is a crime; sex work is an agreement between two adults. These two things are not the same,” Steel explains. “The biggest mistake people make is to think that all sex workers need to be saved.” For the last 14 months, Steel has been in a steady relationship. Does her boyfriend ever get jealous about her selling her body to other men? “As you can see, I didn’t sell any of my body parts,” she says sarcastically, stretching her arm out before her. “I sell a service, not my body. My customers are normal, nice people – your dad, your brother, your colleague. And my boyfriend was happy to learn about what I do for a living!” NB